Book Excerpt: The Marriage Sabbatical

This book is based on interviews with fifty-five women. I interviewed some women either before or during their journeys, then again after they arrived home. The majority, however, were looking back on their experiences with some distance and perspective. Real names are used for those whose experiences were already in print. I changed all other women's names to protect their privacy but kept their professions because the nature of their sabbaticals was often linked to their work. To give a broader dimension to women's experiences, I talked with thirty husbands and twenty children. For psychological insights, I interviewed twenty-four professionals, including marriage counselors and researchers, psychologists, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and Jungian analysts. I didn't want academic answers. All were clinicians, the majority married ten years or longer. A number of them had taken sabbaticals themselves.

This book is not a marriage manual or how-to guide. It is not an analysis of a sociological trend or a simplistic endorsement. It is an exploration of married women leaving home — their reasons, their anxieties, their experiences — and the impact of these experiences on them, their husbands, and their marriages. The more I delved into the topic, the less I wanted to include my own story. Other women had greater obstacles to overcome and more dramatic stories to tell. While it was fascinating to interview others, it was painful to look at my own life, the mistakes I made, the fears and insecurities I harbored. I wasn't prepared to recognize other women's land mines as my own. I included my story, in the end, because it is from the heart of these emotions that the book was written.

How do I define sabbatical? I use the term the same way it is used in professional life: a personal time-out from daily routines for creative, professional, or spiritual growth, for study, reflection, or renewal. It is not a prolonged visit with friends or an emergency leave to care for an ailing parent. It is not summers with the children at the lake, with husbands arriving on the weekend. The sabbaticals — in this book — are solo journeys in which women voluntarily leave all that is familiar and comfortable and safe to venture into the unknown.

What time frame constitutes a sabbatical in marriage? The more I tried to contain the duration, the more elastic it became. It's whatever a woman needs to re-create her life or fulfill a dream, which means it's different for each woman. What's important about the duration is less the time spent, more the stretch and the effect. A five-week leave for one woman can be a more difficult and transformative act than a five-month leave for another. In this book, four sabbaticals lasted more than a year. Six extended over several years, when women went out of town for graduate school, which meant several leaves of four months each. The rest ranged from one to nine months. The average time away was four months, the typical length of a sabbatical in academia today. But more than half of the women's journeys lasted between one month and three, a duration likelier to be found in the business world.

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